In baseball terminology, a quality start is defined as a starting pitcher who works through six innings while allowing three runs or less. Remarkably, with Friday night aces throwing on schedule and experienced, dependable arms going Saturday and Sunday, the Arkansas baseball series against Alabama saw zero quality starts from either staff.
Six guys trotted out for the first inning and only one — Alabama’s Saturday starter, Luke Holman — dipped his toe in the 6th inning. But he was yanked after recording one out and giving up four earned runs.
Well, make that seven guys in the first inning because Arkansas’ Sunday starter, freshman Ben Bybee, didn’t make it out of the first after surrendering three walks, two hits and two runs after recording two quick outs to start the game.
If someone would have told me last Thursday that the Razorbacks would get zero quality starts in the series against a pesky, veteran Alabama team and win the series, I would have said, “No way.”
And I would have been dead wrong due to a remarkable, gutty effort by a short-handed Razorback pitching staff.
Short, ineffective starts will tax a bullpen and given all the injuries to the Arkansas pitching staff, that is a risky proposition. The preseason injury to proposed starter and possible ace Jaxson Wiggins reshuffled the deck from the get go.
Not long after that, star closer Brady Tygart left the mound against Illinois State with elbow discomfort that has put him on the shelf since early March. Then a few days later, Nebraska transfer Koty Frank was set to be a key long relief option until he tore his lat in an appearance against Wright State in early March. Wiggins and Frank won’t pitch again in 2023. Tygart seems to be working his way back, but more on that in a bit.
With those three crucial cogs in the wheel out of service, the Razorbacks have willed their way to a top-5 ranking halfway through the regular season and sit atop the SEC West with everybody’s national champion pick LSU. Of course the offense has been productive despite not clicking on all cylinders in SEC play and the defense has been solid. Those two pieces of the puzzle were expected coming into the season and have panned out. The surprise in all this early success is the flexibility, competitiveness and performance of some arms that, frankly, weren’t in the plans until the injuries.
Dave Van Horn’s Gamble
A tip of the cap goes to Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs on adjusting ace Hagen Smith’s role from Friday night starter to lockdown closer after Tygart went down. Not many skippers would do that, but the logic makes sense. Wins are precious and sweeps are back breakers in the SEC.
If you’ve got a lead after the fifth, the confidence and track record shows that Smith will typically get the Razorbacks to the finish line. If his outing is short, he could bounce back on the weekend and possibly lock up another win or get out of a big jam with his wicked swing and miss stuff. His move to the bullpen during the Hogs’ run to Omaha last season was a difference maker, as Tygart was shaky at best after a freshman All-American type regular season.
That chess move pushed lanky left-hander Hunter Hollan from the Sunday starter to the bright lights of Friday night. I don’t believe Hollan was truly the Hogs’ No. 3 starter, but Van Horn was trying to keep the opponents off balance by going with a lefty in Smith, then a right-hander in Will McEntire on Saturdays, then back left with Hollan. Despite his uncharacteristically rough outing against the Crimson Tide, he’s looked every bit the part of a Friday night ace.
There won’t be a bigger regular-season stage than lining up against potential No. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes of LSU in front of a packed house in Baton Rouge. Hollan went toe to toe with Skenes and combined with Smith to get the Hogs a crucial road win. His stuff just wasn’t good against Alabama and their veteran lineup jumped all over him for his worst outing of the 2023 campaign. Look for him to find his four-pitch mix and location to bounce back against Ole Miss this Thursday in Oxford.
Surprising Emergence of Carter
Smith’s extended outings the past two weekends against LSU and Alabama has pushed Bentonville native Dylan Carter into the spotlight after not much fanfare this past fall or in the preseason. Carter committed to the Hogs out of high school, ended up at powerhouse JUCO Crowder College in Missouri for the shortened COVID season and in 2021, but put up less than spectacular numbers. Carter came back to Fayetteville for the 2022 campaign, but redshirted, which is a little unorthodox for an older player.
Then he seemed to start putting things together in the Northwoods Collegiate Summer League, where he made the all-star team. Now halfway through the regular season, Carter has closed games, thrown twice on a weekend and become a go-to guy when the game is on the line. Carter’s ability to pepper the strike zone with a good array of pitches has been the key to his success. His fastball, while not overpowering, does have good tilt, meaning it starts high and finishes low on two different planes.
Given it’s not overpowering, Carter has to locate it well because when he hasn’t, he’s been hit around a little bit. He’s been very effective against left-handed bats using a fading, well-disguised changeup to keep them off balance. Carter has definitely taken a little crack of opportunity and kicked the door down with his performance up to this point. Not sure that was in the cards when the season started in February and the Hogs would be ridiculously thin on the mound without him.
Adcock’s Up-and-Down Season
The Swiss Army knife of the staff has been an Ole Miss bounceback via the aforementioned JUCO route: right-hander Cody Adcock. He pitched sparingly in Oxford as a freshman, bolted to Crowder to get more opportunities, but, like Carter, didn’t perform that well. At 6-foot-4, the size and the stuff is there, but Adcock seems to lack a little polish. More thrower than pitcher.
His numbers are elevated at Arkansas because when he’s bad, he’s real bad – as evidenced by his 7 home runs allowed in only 24 innings. But when he’s good, he’s been really, really good. His Sunday start against Auburn was magical with six innings of shutout baseball.
Then he was rocked at LSU the next weekend and relegated back to the bullpen, where he was fantastic in two key outings against Alabama. Adcock came in to get a huge strike out in Saturday’s win and then settled the ship after Bybee’s trainwreck Sunday start with 3 1/3 innings and only one run allowed.
As Adock’s pitchability improves, look for more dominant outings either as a starter or as a high-leverage situation reliever. It looks like that will be a week-to-week decision provided how the games go.
Arkansas Baseball Bullpen
More than injuries have hampered bullpen depth, as veteran lefty Zach Morris hasn’t been the same pitcher as in the past. Despite pitching Adcock and Carter on fumes this past Sunday, Morris wasn’t even really in the mix to make an appearance.
Don’t forget, this is a guy who worked out of a bases-loaded jam against eventual national champion Ole Miss the season before. Morris doesn’t seem to have the same confidence and rhythm compared to seasons past. The Hogs could really take a huge step forward if he could find his swagger and stuff again.
Finally, let’s get back to Tygart. Van Horn recently announced that his star closer had begun throwing again off the mound and he hopes to have him back by the Georgia series at the end of April. He’s not 100% yet, but building toward that – provided there are no setbacks.
If he does come back, his use will be delicate as he builds confidence in his arm and he can cut it loose. Basically, he has to trust his body and his stuff and the coaching staff has to trust he can get big outs again. Time will tell if Van Horn and Hobbs get the old Brady Tygart back or not.
In the meantime, look for freshman fireballer Gage Wood to keep getting opportunities. In an up-and-down freshman campaign, Wood has been good-to-great and bad-to-awful. His latest outing against Alabama on Sunday may be the spark that leads to more consistent performances during the back half of the season.
How he handles a rowdy crowd in Oxford will be another huge test for the Batesville native. When he’s been in the strike zone, he’s been really good. When he can’t find it, the baserunners have piled up quickly, leading to crooked numbers on the scoreboard. As his confidence grows, he could end up matching Tygart’s freshman campaign because the stuff is there.
Arkansas Baseball Pitching Moving Forward
There are plenty of games left this season for Arkansas’ pitching staff to sink or swim. I do think Hunter Hollan will bounce back against Ole Miss because he’s been outstanding other than against Alabama and hopefully Will McEntire can find his groove after a couple of rough outings.
The Sunday starter will likely be a revolving door, depending on how the first two games of the series go. Cody Adcock will be in the mix to start and maybe, if he can find his stuff again, Zack Morris. Perhaps infielder-turned-pitcher Ben McLaughlin will get a shot to see how he matches up with SEC hitters, or freshman Christian Foutch, who has thrown only three innings but has looked good doing it.
My money is on Dave Van Horn to mix and match enough to find a way to compete each remaining weekend. Management of a pitching staff to win a three-game series is an art and the depth/talent heading into the season was shaping up to be one of the best staffs assembled up there.
Given the praise Van Horn lavished on the staff in the preseason, it has the potential to rival the 2018 CWS runner up squad led by Blaine Knight, Matt Cronin, Kacey Murphy, Isaiah Campbell, Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke.
Smith, Hollan, McEntire, Adcock, Carter and TBA is who the Hogs are riding now. Who will settle into dependability and who will emerge to be that sixth or seventh arm to provide depth will be the kicker.
And unfortunately, the jury’s still out on who that will be.
In addition to being a contributor to BoAS, Brent Birch is a former Arkansas pitcher, lettering for the Razorbacks from 1990-93.
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